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The Education of Henry Adams is a parody of the Bildungsroman. Born in 1838 into one of the great political families of the United States, Adams died 80 years later, having witnessed from various elevated public stations the tumultuous decades that transformed America from a predominantly bucolic and agricultural society to an urban and industrial powerhouse. His recurrent lament in The Education of Henry Adams is how ill-prepared he was to fathom the momentous changes through which he lived. His understanding was always calamitously in arrears of his experience, and The Education of Henry Adams for the most part tells the story of a Bildung (self-cultivation) that failed to happen.  

A period when Adams felt particularly out of his depth was the early 1860s. Against the backdrop of rising tensions between the northern and the southern states, Adams's father had been appointed as Abraham Lincoln's minister to England, and Henry accompanied him as his secretary. It was a most difficult and delicate posting, for English sympathies — and certainly the sympathies of the majority of the English political caste — were with the South. Although England claimed to be neutral, it offered surreptitious help and comfort to the slave-owning states, in part because of the economic ties that linked the cotton mills of Lancashire to the crops of the Confederacy. Without being treated exactly as pariahs, the Adamses nevertheless found English high society cold and quietly hostile: "Neither Oxford nor Cambridge nor any region south of the Humber contained a considerable house where a young American would have been sought as a friend."

It was only among radical circles that Henry Adams felt truly welcome. Radicals such as Monckton Milnes, a "hard-drinking, horse-racing Yorkshireman", cultivated the representatives of the northern states. For them, the humanitarian question of slavery took precedence over questions of economics. In 1862 Milnes invited Adams to spend Christmas with him and a few other house guests. It was a strange party: "Fryston was one of a class of houses that no one sought for its natural beauties, and the winter mists of Yorkshire were rather more evident for the absence of the hostess on account of them."  Such privations apart, this was however an important connection for Adams, because through Monckton Milnes he met his distant cousin, James Milnes Gaskell:

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